European foreign ministers were quick yesterday to condemn the “extra-judicial killing” of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of Hamas, by Israel. Jack Straw was particularly indignant about Israel’s failure to abide by international law. A whiff of hypocrisy emanates from such moralising ministers, some of whom have cheerfully countenanced assassination attempts of their own – most recently against the leaders of Iraq, al-Qa’eda and the Taliban. Tony Blair, for one, is well aware that Hamas belongs on the same terrorist continuum as the bombers of Madrid and Manhattan, not to mention those who yesterday wounded 13 British soldiers in Basra.
Yassin’s life had been dedicated to the self-immolation of his people. The vile cult of the suicide bomber, though alien to Islamic tradition, has acquired a spurious legitimacy in the Muslim world, and especially among Palestinians – mainly thanks to clerical demagogues such as Yassin. Hamas, the terrorist network he founded, remains implacably opposed to compromise. It regards any Israeli retreat from settlements in Gaza and the West Bank as a sign of decadence and weakness.
To dispel Arab illusions that Israel’s consolidation might represent a victory for terrorism, Ariel Sharon’s government has targeted leaders of Hamas. Intended to intimidate by striking not only at the young terrorists, but also at the veterans who recruit and control them, the policy culminated in Mr Sharon’s decision to kill Yassin, the éminence grise of the intifada.
The global reaction to that decision, however, casts doubt on Mr Sharon’s entire policy. To kill Yassin already looks like a serious mistake, less for moral than for strategic reasons. His assassination has divided Israel, including the cabinet, for no compensating gain in security. By granting Yassin the martyrdom he craved, the Israelis have provided a motive for new suicide attacks. More young Palestinians will fall in love with death, and more Israeli civilians will die with them.
Whatever Yassin’s death was meant to achieve, its symbolism is disastrous for Israel. Did Mr Sharon and his advisers consider how the spectacle of helicopter gunships rocketing an old man in a wheelchair outside his mosque would appear to the world? Did they intend to turn this merchant of death into a victim – the Palestinian equivalent of Leon Klinghoffer? Despite intensive efforts to improve Israel’s image abroad, and despite sympathy for victims of suicide bombings (most recently in Ashdod), the Jewish state now looks more isolated than ever. Like Napoleon’s decision to execute the Duc d’Enghien, which transformed his image from that of a liberator into that of a tyrant, Sharon’s decision to execute Yassin is worse than a crime: it is a blunder.